Mikhail: A Royal Dragon Romance by Lauren Smith by Lauren Smith - Read Online

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Mikhail - Lauren Smith

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Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

England, September 1559

The halls of Hampton Court Palace were quiet so close to midnight. There was no sound of laughter from the courtiers, not even the hushed murmurs of gentlemen luring young maids into dark corners for secret kisses. The tapestries lining the stone walls rippled faintly with the breeze that slipped in through half-open windows.

Mikhail Barinov adjusted his black-and-gold doublet as he walked in light, quiet steps toward a bedchamber door. He ignored the prickle of unease he felt at the silence cloaking him as he saw a guard ahead. The man was posted outside the door, his hand resting on the pommel of a lethal-looking blade that Mikhail wasn’t the least bit afraid of. He was, after all, not human. He was a dragon shifter, and there had been no human yet who had been able to do him harm.

Halt! the guard growled. Mikhail was close enough to see the whites of the other man’s eyes in the flickering light of the wall sconces.

He raised his hands, showing his empty palms before he offered a slight courtly bow. My name is Mikhail Barinov. Her Majesty requested my presence. When the guard relaxed, Mikhail removed a small bit of parchment from his doublet and handed it to the man.

The guard scowled as he stared at it. The odds that the man could even read were small, not that he would admit such a thing. But the royal seal of Queen Elizabeth was visible on the paper, and the guard recognized it at once.

Wait here. The guard rapped his knuckles on the door behind him, then disappeared into the queen’s antechamber. A minute later he reappeared, flustered as he pushed the heavy oak door wide, allowing Mikhail to enter. He nodded at the guard and stepped into the antechamber.

A soft voice rose from a chair beside the fire. Well now. I was worried you might not come. The woman leaned forward in her chair, allowing the light and shadows of the flames to dance upon her. Her long reddish-gold hair was unbound and cascaded over her shoulders in ripples of fire.

Mikhail swallowed hard as a bolt of desire shot through him. Queen Elizabeth, the newly anointed monarch, wasn’t a traditional beauty with delicate elfin features. Rather, there was a cunning curve to her lips and a keen sharpness to her eyes that warned a man she was not some wilting flower, but his equal. He found it enticing.

I would not refuse my queen’s summons, Mikhail said as he drew closer.

Am I your queen? As she rose from her chair, he caught a glimpse of her gown. The orange satin overskirt and the gold-and-silver embroidered bodice presented a tempting view of her breasts. She wore no ruffles or stiff collars tonight. She looked more like the twenty-five-year-old woman who had unexpectedly learned she was to become queen and not the cold, disciplined monarch she’d become.

You are my queen, Mikhail replied, his voice turning husky. The scent of her body lulled his inner dragon into a heady state of submission. He wanted to growl in pleasure and rub himself against her. She was untouched, the virgin queen, and Mikhail knew that was a dangerous thing to be around. A dragon was drawn to maidens; the purity in them was as bewitching as an uncut gemstone. Their scent alone could drive a dragon to sweet madness.

Don’t you owe your loyalty to Ivan? Would you forsake your czar for me? Elizabeth trailed pale, delicate fingers along the back of her chair, a coy smile upon her lips.

The Barinov family makes alliances with whomever we please, Mikhail said. He had traveled a long way from his home in Russia to come to the English court to arrange for a treaty with a clan of English dragons. He’d thought he would long for Russia, but in fact he did not miss his homeland. Not when he looked at this woman. England felt right, and Elizabeth… She was his true mate. And when a dragon mated, it was forever.

True mates were sacred, and from the moment he’d seen her, he’d known she was his, the one destiny had chosen for him. There could be no other. He’d answered her summons tonight to tell her what he really was and to offer her his heart and his love. He didn’t care that mating her would shorten his life immeasurably—all that mattered was being with her.

Yes. The Barinov family. I was so curious when you arrived at court. The rumors I’ve heard are quite…interesting. She came closer and reached up to brush the backs of her fingers along his jaw. His skin burned at her touch. Once they kissed, he would begin to bond with her so strongly that it could never be undone. His heart and hers would unite in a way that human lovers could only ever dream about.

Rumors? he replied, his eyes half-closed as he enjoyed her sensual caress. It made his inner dragon growl in pleasure.

Hmmm… They say that you have an ink marking on your back, a mighty dragon that is said to move. Her brown eyes were cool and impassive, but a hint of a smile lingered on her lips.

That sense of unease returned as he studied Elizabeth closely. His tattoo was the beast’s outward form when he was human. How could she know about that?

I… He hesitated. Was now the time to confess it all?

She ran a fingertip down his doublet to his stomach, making his abs quiver and tense. Show me, Mikhail. Please your queen. He’d wanted to show his true self to her for so long, and now the time had come. His heart raced as he accepted this moment, this unveiling of the truth to his intended mate.

He’d spent the last year in England and the last six months falling in love with England’s virgin queen. At last, he could show her his world. Watching her through hooded eyes, he slowly removed his doublet by unlacing the leather points and letting it drop. Then he removed his shirt, allowing Elizabeth to gaze at his bare chest.

Her dark eyes surveyed him with a possessive gleam, one he recognized all too well. He’d come to England on a quest for a fortune in jewels to take home to Russia. The moment he had collected his hoard, he had clutched a handful of gemstones in his hand for hours, watching them glint and sparkle in the firelight. Elizabeth was looking at him now as though he were a precious gem that she held in the palm of her hand.

How beautiful you are. She traced a pattern over his biceps before walking around to examine his back. The silk of her skirts whispered on the rug.

The gasp she gave made his muscles twitch. He could feel his dragon stirring inside, longing to reveal itself.

It moves? The queen’s voice was full of awe, and he smiled at the touch of her fingers between his shoulder blades. Is it sorcery? she asked in a whisper, almost too quiet for him to hear.

Sorcery? No, it is something far more ancient, Your Majesty. Now was the time to tell her what he really was and to ask her to join him in mating. His heart skittered in his chest, and he nearly laughed. He, an almost two-thousand-year-old dragon, was nervous.

Ancient? She circled back around to face him, and her cheeks glowed with a soft pink blush. Her breasts rose and fell as she breathed faster.

Yes. I wish to tell you what I am. He should not be nervous or frightened, but he was. What if she wanted him no longer? After six months of secret courting, he could not stand the thought of being turned away, not when his dragon had decided she was worthy.

What you are… she said, echoing the words. My dear Lord Barinov, I believe we should have a drink before we discuss our dark secrets.

A drink? He watched in surprise as she brought him a goblet and took one of her own.

’Tis mulled wine. I believe you’ll find it to your liking. She took a sip of her glass, and he did the same. The wine was sweet with spices on his tongue, and he drank it greedily.

You are what we believed long dead, aren’t you? she asked.

Mikhail took another sip of his wine, wondering how best to answer.

I am a dragon shifter. I have lived upon this earth for more than a thousand years. I am fully man and fully beast. He waited, watching, hoping his announcement wouldn’t scare her.

Two beings in one divine body. She ran her hand over his chest again, a coy smile on her lips. The church would have you burned at the stake if they were to discover such heresy.

Mikhail chuckled. I do not fear fire. It obeys my will. He raised his hand and gestured to the nearest candle on the table closest to them. The flame winked out.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. Such power…

And it is yours, my queen. As my mate, you would have the might of my people at your disposal. He held his breath, afraid to tell her that if she became his mate, it would shorten his lifespan, but love was worth that sort of sacrifice.

Is it true that dragons hoard jewels? she asked suddenly, mischief glinting her eyes. She was breathing faster now, her breasts pressing tight against her corset, making it hard for him to think of anything but taking her to bed. He gulped down more wine, pleased that he was winning her over so easily.

We love all things that glint and shine, my queen, whether they be jewels or the eyes of a pretty woman. He grinned at her, feeling strangely relaxed and confident.

She set her glass down and then moved to the doorway that led to her bedchamber. She leaned against the doorjamb, her gown trailing behind her, the tiny diamonds on her sleeves winking at him.

I believe we should find a much more suitable place to whisper our secrets. And then she vanished into the darkness. Mikhail followed, his steps a tad heavy and his preternatural senses strangely dulled. By the time he reached the large canopy bed, he felt weak as a drakeling. Was this how it felt to claim one’s mate? To feel weak and giddy like a mortal man drunk on mead?

Mikhail, Elizabeth crooned as he collapsed onto the bed, his brain fuzzy. She leaned over him, and the distant candles from the table by the bed lit her face.

My queen, he sighed dreamily, wishing that he could lift his arms to pull her down for a kiss. Why was he so tired? It wasn’t like him.

Where is your hoard of jewels, my love? I wish for you to share them with me.

Secret. Safe, he said, his voice slurring a little.

She feathered her lips over his, and he thought he would die with how wonderful it felt. Tell me. She tortured him with her sweetness. He wished he had the strength to grab her and pull her beneath him, but he could barely move.

Mikhail, you must tell me where the jewels are, the ones you are taking from the Belishaw family.

He frowned, confused. You know about the Belishaws?

I am the queen. It is my duty to know everything, she said, her voice slightly cold. Those jewels were my father’s, not theirs, yet they took them from him. She dug her nails into his shoulders. "Now, tell me!" Her tone was more insistent, and he found he couldn’t fight anymore.

A distant flash of alarm came too late for him because he was already speaking.

Buried beneath a copse of trees close to St. Giles in the Fields. His head fell back onto the feather tick mattress, and he could feel his body betraying him with its weakness.

Thank you, my love. You have given me a dragon’s hoard of jewels. Sleep now, because when you wake, I fear you shall be most angry with me. Elizabeth pressed her lips to his, and the kiss was bittersweet.

But…you are my true mate. Why would you betray me?

True mate? she scoffed. As if I could ever love one such as you.

His eyes widened.

"You think I didn’t know what you really are? she said with a laugh. I have been warned about you, love. My royal advisor discovered what you were long ago. My father left warnings about your kind when he was still alive. You would seduce me, plunder my country’s riches, and leave me with nothing as you returned to your home. You disgust me."

No, I would… never…

The drink I gave you? A gift, from my most trusted magician. He spent months learning all he could about your kind. Formidable as you are, you are not invulnerable. He learned of a way to make you weak, make you human, just like the rest of us.

Human? He choked on the word, fear tearing through him.

Yes, human. You even say the word with contempt. Do not worry, it will not last forever, but long enough for me to take back what is rightfully mine and to punish you properly.

No. Please. You cannot…betray me, I am… I am your mate.

Mate? I would never mate with an unholy beast whose existence is built upon lies and greed. She slid off the bed, leaving him lying helpless in the shadows of her bedchamber. Oaths hold no power over you. How could anyone love such a serpent?

That’s...that’s not…

But he could say no more. Words abandoned him. She was stealing the jewels, the ones he was supposed to take home. He was a fool. He had failed in his duty. And even if he escaped this fate, he would be exiled for this. The dark rush of thoughts consumed him as he slipped deeper and deeper into unconsciousness.

Mikhail jerked awake, the memory from half a millennium ago still lingering in his mind, the taste of Elizabeth’s kiss still on his lips and her mocking smile still burned into his memory. But it wasn’t 1559 anymore. Half a millennium had passed between that fateful kiss and the solitary life he led in Cornwall now.

He sat up, eyes adjusting to the lack of moonlight, his thoughts still back at the moment his life had changed forever—when the woman he’d thought he loved had drugged his wine, stolen his hoard, and then imprisoned him behind iron bars, the one metal that could harm a dragon and which he had no power over, for half a century. The woman had taken everything that mattered to him, and centuries later, it still stung to realize the extent of his gullibility.

Eyes sharpening in the darkness, his dragon senses assessed the night. A faint patter of rain against the bay windows drew his attention. The dragon inside him shifted, wanting to manifest itself and take flight. Over the years the beast in him had become almost feral, carrying with it a desire to fly in dangerous conditions.

Elizabeth’s betrayal had dug deep into him, like claws raking old wounds open again and again. He had wanted her for his mate, she had been the one fate had chosen for him, yet she hadn’t believed true mating was real, not until she was on her death bed, and by then it was far too late.

I was nothing but an unholy beast to her except in those final hours of her life. She saw me only as a means to take back those jewels to line her royal coffers.

Being rejected by her had nearly killed him. A dragon couldn’t live without its mate. And while he hadn’t completed the mating bond, his dragon had been driven half-mad with grief by losing her. Even now, five hundred years later, thinking of her made his dragon reckless, desperate to hurt itself because it didn’t care to live, not without its mate. He could feel it stir inside him, wanting to plunge off the cliffs and test its wings against the lightning and the rain.

Soon, he promised. Soon.

He swung his legs out of bed and stood. The stone floor was cool beneath his feet. He was surprised that it wasn’t snowing outside. This time of year on the coast of Cornwall there should be a great, fierce storm raging against the shore, layering the rocky inland hills with wet, sticky snow.

It was not the kind of snow he was used to, however, even after living here for five centuries. He preferred his snow thick and fluffy, dry as vodka. Russian snow. The snow of his homeland. But that was lost to him. He could not go home until he recovered the jewels Queen Elizabeth had stolen from him. It was a matter of honor.

Mikhail left his bedchamber and walked down the narrow hall of his home. It was a stone country house, a mere mile from the cliffs. The secluded spot left him isolated, just as he liked it. It was dangerous to navigate the roads around the coast this time of year, and the self-imposed isolation left him melancholy, but he welcomed the dark tide of feelings.

He hadn’t always been this way, the kind of man who preferred solitude to companionship. But he’d been burned too often by the friendship of mortals to fully trust them ever again, and he’d never felt at home among the English dragon families, except perhaps for the Belishaws. He was content to be an outsider…forever.

He paused at the foot of the stairs, listening to the old grandfather clock ticking away the hours. Two in the morning. Outside, the sea pounded against the cliffs, the sound reminding Mikhail of how alone and remote his country house was. The frothy white spray from the water struck the rocks and formed a thick, almost impenetrable mist that had lured many a ship to a watery grave. In many ways, Cornwall was like the edge of hell—a dark, harsh place, especially in winter, and yet somehow that made it beautiful as well. A place of endings, a place of darkness and loneliness that called to his wounded soul.

His eyes strayed to an oil painting by the stairs, one of the dark cliffs with the distant black figure of a dragon flying out to sea. The house was full of memories and the ghost of his friend James Barrow, the one human he had trusted. But James had died long ago, more than a hundred and fifty years now.

Mikhail, stop brooding. James’s laughter echoed through the hall, a flash of memory that made him smile. If there was anyone aside from his brothers who had understood him, it had been James. The human had been a friend to him when he’d needed it most, a brother when he had become brotherless. Their bond had run deep in a time when Mikhail had felt most alone because of his exile. When James had died, he’d left Mikhail the house, as well as all of the ghosts and memories that came with it.

Mikhail had no urge to return to bed, lest dark dreams come creeping back up on him. With that unpleasant thought, he headed for the living room. He collapsed onto the leather sofa and flicked on the television, flipping through the absurd number of channels before a news story made his body freeze.

He turned the sound up to listen to a breaking news report from London. A reporter spoke in front of the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

We officially confirmed last night’s immense discovery, the man said, excitement flustering his face. Workmen installing a new wine cellar in the basement of a small bed-and-breakfast in Cheapside unearthed what turned out to be the remnants of a far older building. Tests confirm that the edifice was likely built around the middle of the sixteenth century.

He paused, catching his breath before continuing. But the most amazing part of this discovery is the large pile of jewels that were uncovered in the remains of the old building beneath the inn. More than two hundred pounds of raw gems and finished settings, believed to have been from the Elizabethan era, have been transported to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Over the next two weeks, the items will be cataloged and transferred to the Thorne Auction House.

The female news anchor interrupted. And I understand that this find is unusual for another reason?

That is correct. Because the finding is strictly made up of gemstones, they do not fall under the Treasure Act of 1996 and are therefore not required to be sold to a museum. As such, they remain the property of the bed-and-breakfast owners, a Mr. and Mrs. Elwes-Bush. The Victoria and Albert Museum representatives will be among the bidders at the auction, of course.

The TV cut away from the reporter to show photos of the jewels. Among the pearls and rubies, he caught a glimpse of a gemstone emerald watch made from a single large emerald, cut into a square box shape, with delicate gold roman numerals inside. A string of wild thoughts raced through him as he recognized what he saw.

My hoard…

Mikhail could barely breathe. The jewels, his jewels, were at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He knew those gems, had gazed at them for hours, burning their vivid colors into his mind so he would never forget. He’d spent five centuries trying to find them again, searching all of England for them, and they’d been hidden away somewhere in Cheapside.

She’d never put them back in the royal treasury, possibly because she knew he’d look for them. When he’d finally emerged from his prison, he’d sought word on their last